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Presidents, protest, and patriotism

By Andrew J. Polsky

In the midst of a military conflict, domestic antiwar opposition always vexes a president. This reaction is understandable. He sees the criticism as a risk to national security, something that will give aid and comfort to the enemy, demoralize American troops in combat, and weaken the resolve of the public. What he fails to appreciate is how protest serves as a warning that something has gone very wrong with his war.

Sherman's Grand Army. Looking up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Treasury buildings. Maj. Gen. Jeff. C. Davis and staff and 19th Army Corps passing in review. 1861-1865. Source: NYPL.
Our adversaries have long appreciated that public opinion is a point of vulnerability in the American arsenal. They have tried to exploit this weakness. During the Civil War, Confederate political and military leaders saw war weariness in the North as their best chance for victory. They understood they could never match the military resources of the Union; their armies would always be outnumbered. Instead they counted on the mounting casualty lists and the perception that the Union forces were making no progress to sap the will on the Northern home front. The Confederacy probably came closest to victory in the summer of 1864 when Union armies stalled outside Petersburg and Atlanta amid horrific battlefield losses. Even Abraham Lincoln concluded he could not win reelection unless the military situation improved.

In recent wars in which the United States finds itself fighting insurgents, the American people are again very much a part of the struggle. The US military speaks of “winning hearts and minds” in places such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In fact, however, the hearts and minds of the American people are just as much at stake. The insurgents we oppose recognize that they will prevail if they wear down public support back in the States.

The Vietnam War demonstrates the important role played by the domestic “second front.” To the chagrin of both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, communist leaders in Hanoi reached out to American antiwar activists and sought to manipulate public opinion in the United States and elsewhere. Civilian casualties from American bombing raids became the subject of propaganda campaigns; the communists kept careful track of the size of peace demonstrations and invited peace advocates to visit North Vietnam to witness the damage done to civilian targets by the air attacks.

Faced with mounting antiwar opposition, a president tends to lash out at his critics. He questions their patriotism. In some instances, he backs efforts to silence the opposition, as when the Wilson administration pushed through the 1918 Sedition Act that permitted jailing anyone who said anything disloyal or abusive about the government or the army. During the Vietnam War, peace groups were investigated to determine whether they were acting on instructions from Hanoi.

A president’s great fear is that as a conflict drags on, the protests will gain traction within the political mainstream. So long as the critics remain isolated on the fringes of political discourse, their voices can be dismissed. Once they find mainstream patrons, however, they gain a platform that makes the challenge difficult to ignore. This happened in 1966 when Senator J. William Fulbright used his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold televised hearings on the Vietnam War that let critics of the Johnson policy voice their reservations to a national audience. Similarly, the debate over Iraq changed in November 2005 when Representative John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, urged a prompt withdrawal.

Natural though it may be for a president to see antiwar protest as a threat to American security, his reaction is misguided. The critics are actually performing a vital function. Like the proverbial miner’s canary, they send a crucial signal; when the bird expires, something has gone very wrong. In the case of a growing peace movement, the spreading protest points to the president’s mishandling of the war itself.

Consider Vietnam and Iraq. In the former, opposition became widespread in 1967 as it became clear that the war had reached a stalemate on the battlefield, something that key administration figures such as secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had recognized, but President Johnson refused to address by changing his policy. Protest surged again in 1970 amid President Nixon’s Cambodian incursion, an operation that his defense secretary Melvin Laird also regarded as misconceived. In the case of Iraq, President Bush needed the strong wake-up call delivered by the public rebuff of the Republicans in the 2006 election and the Iraq Study Group report that proposed a specific withdrawal timetable. Bush followed with the troop surge that helped stem the violence in Iraq.

The lesson is clear. Wartime presidents may wrap themselves in the flag, but they need their critics more than they would ever admit.

Andrew J. Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read his previous blog posts: “Obama v. Romney on Afganistan strategy,” “Mitt Romney as Commander in Chief: some troubling signs,” “Muddling counterinsurgency’s impact,” and “To be Commander-in-Chief.”

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  1. […] presidents never take the decision to use force lightly and they have always been mindful of the need for public support. But when they face what they regard as an international crisis, they have been very effective in […]

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